Colon polyps are small clumps of fleshy tissue that form on the lining of the colon, also called the large intestine. These polyps are extremely common and the chance of getting one increase with age. A person also has a greater chance of getting colon polyps if they or a family member has had polyps previously or if someone in their family has had cancer of the large intestine. In addition, people are more likely to get polyps if they drink alcohol, are overweight, eat a lot of fatty foods, avoid exercise or smoke tobacco products.
Although a majority of colon polyps is benign, or non-cancerous, some polyps can turn into cancer over time. The polyps that are smaller than a pea usually are not harmful, but larger polyps can become malignant, or cancerous. To be on the safe side, a physician should remove polyps of any size. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancerous deaths in the United States, so regular colon polyp screening and removal are very important.
Doctors have several screening methods they use to check for colon polyps. The most common test used is the digital rectal exam, where the physician uses a gloved hand to feel the patient’s rectum for abnormalities. This test only finds larger polyps located in the rectum, though, so the doctor might conduct another test to explore higher up in the large intestine.
Some physicians use a barium enema (BE) to check for colon polyps. This test is highly unpleasant and requires barium be inserted into the rectum where it spreads and coats the entire bowel. The barium makes the intestine look white in the x-rays while the polyps appear dark in the pictures.
The physician can also perform a sigmoidoscopy to peek inside of the large intestine. The sigmoidoscope is a tube that has a light and a small video camera in it. This flexible tube is inserted up through the rectum and the doctor can see the last third of the large intestine. If doctors find colon polyps, they typically elect to conduct a full colonoscopy to explore the entire large intestine.
A majority of smaller colon polyps do not cause any symptoms. Larger polyps, however, might cause rectal bleeding, diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain or bloody stools. If someone has any of these symptoms, a physician should be consulted. Colon polyps found in the early stages can typically be removed completely and safely.
Although there are no sure ways to avoid getting colon polyps, many doctors recommend eating more fruits, vegetables and fiber and avoiding fatty foods. People can also quit smoking and drinking and try to do some form of exercise every day. Some physicians recommend including more folic acid and calcium in the diet. Foods such as cheese, milk, chickpeas, spinach, kidney beans and broccoli may help lower the risk of polyps. Medical studies have found that vitamins C and E can also protect individuals from colon polyps.